I feel like this is one of those debates where there may be less disagreement than usual, given the appalling cuts that almost all our councils have faced over the last seven years. Let us be clear that council budgets are at breaking point. There are very few places left to cut. We are talking about our councils struggling to stay financially viable. There is little to nothing known about their sustainability from 2020 onwards, and there is real fear in our communities as we begin to lose services that are essential to people’s wellbeing. The truth is that the Government have put so much pressure on councils that statutory services have never been on a more insecure footing. They have put ever-increasing pressure on councils such as mine in Bradford and in other areas that sadly face the reality of deprivation.
“local government delivers vital services for the communities they serve—services that many of us take for granted, provided by dedicated, often unsung councillors and officers in places that we are all proud to call home. As such, as I have said before, local government is the frontline of our democracy and deserves the resources it needs to do its job,” which is to
“deliver truly world-class services.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 635, c. 1561.]
So the question is: why do the Government treat our tremendous councils, councillors and officers with such contempt, expecting them to provide world-class services that people desperately need with crumbs from the table?
Bradford will have seen a near 30% reduction in its funding by 2020. It will have lost in real terms nearly £65 million from its budgets, and all the Government can do is tell it to manage and keep providing essential services. The difficulty—this has been true of many councils for a long time—is that there is no room left to cut. We are at breaking point, with councils having to lose frontline services at a rate of change that leaves some of the most vulnerable in our communities at risk. In Bradford alone, we face some of the most difficult decisions yet, and that is before we need to find another nearly £30 million in savings in the next year.
A local group, Bradford Families Against Children’s Services Cuts, is fighting to try and save the special educational needs and disability and children’s services provision in the city. These real families are directly affected by the cuts, but the council is in an impossible position: instead of the expected £15 million funding from central Government, it will receive only £7.5 million. Let me be clear: this is at the Government’s door—they are deciding that these services are not worth protecting. The same is true for our early years children’s services, where, because of the extreme savings required by the Government, we are likely to have to lose nearly 200 members of staff. This is the grim reality for councils up and down the country while they strive to provide the most important services with less and less money.
This is not sustainable, and as the National Audit Office report on the financial sustainability of local authorities highlighted in no uncertain terms, as pressures grow, there are real and immediate risks to statutory services. Sadly, the Government seem content to keep dividing people. The chair of Solace and chief executive of Doncaster council wrote in The Guardian that councils can take no
“more shocks to what is already a shocked system.”
They are being thrown over a cliff edge, and Northamptonshire Council is one of those examples. The Government can wrap it up how they want, but the fact is that the situation is due to their cuts and their austerity policies. They really need to take stock and change those policies.